"It's good to be back after 917 days" - Ex-Newcastle prodigy Lewis McNall on battling back from double injury heartache
It meant a step forward after painstaking recovery and rehabilitation from a cruel series of injuries.
It meant the start of something exciting, a fresh start and the opportunity to prove himself once again.
And most of all, for striker Lewis McNall, it meant making the most important step on the road to playing on a regular basis after two and a half years away from the game he loves.
“It’s good to be back playing and it’s been a long-time coming,” he admitted to the Gazette. “It’s been tough.”
A ‘long time’ is an understatement. When McNall went to ground just 16 minutes into Gateshead’s National League fixture at Bromley in April 2018, little did he know that it would be 917 days before he saw competitive action once again.
That was the start of 30 months of hurt, but for the full story we must rewind even further, to January 2017 at Eppleton. With just seconds left on the clock of the FA Youth Cup derby between Sunderland and Newcastle, McNall spins inside the area and slots home the winner to send the Magpies through to the quarter-finals after a stunning 4-3 win.
On the same team as him that day was Matty Longstaff. Starring for the Black Cats were Joel Asoro, Josh Maja and Elliot Embleton but McNall, with a brace of goals, was still one of the standout performers.
The Youth Cup run would end a few weeks later with a 5-3 defeat against Tottenham Hotspur in front of thousands of fans at St James’s Park, McNall again showing his qualities with two goals, and a promising career beckoned for the youngster.
A loan spell out at his hometown club Gateshead followed, to give the 18-year-old more experience, and he scored just three minutes into his first start against Gateshead, only to then suffer a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament at Bromley later in his spell.
That was just the start. After a season out rehabilitating, McNall was surprisingly released by the Magpies in the summer of 2019 along with Callum Roberts, and went on trial at Championship club Stoke City. But disaster struck when he broke down in his first training session as he broke down and was diagnosed with the same injury that he had suffered 12 months earlier.
After Covid-19 handed him a long-than-expected comeback from his second serious injury, McNall trained with Gateshead during the summer and made two substitute appearances for Mike Williamson’s side in pre-season.
But he eventually made his competitive comeback – and back in black and white, no less - for Ebac Northern League Division One club Whickham as they fell to a 2-1 FA Vase defeat at Division Two club Redcar Athletic on Saturday.
The relief, delight and realisation of what lies ahead were all too evident as McNall recalled the dark days of last two and a half years.
He told the Gazette: “It’s good to be back playing and it’s been a long-time coming.
“The last competitive game was Gateshead at Bromley in 2018 and I did my ACL, battled back, then did it on trial at Stoke when I was ready to play in their pre-season and it went again.
“Originally, when I had the last operation, they said the rehabilitation would take less time. I was told it would take six months, but that wasn’t in my mind, I didn’t want to take any risks.
“I waited longer, I definitely wanted to get it right and now I have given myself the best possible chance to get where I want to be.”
Mental hurdles have been jumped during his time away from the game, but the psychological aspect of battling back from injury still bears scars that match the physical punishment his body has been through.
“It has been tough,” admitted McNall. “The easiest thing is the rehab after injury. You’re in the gym, that’s your home, you know what you are doing there.
“The toughest part is being back in training, there are no excuses, you must prove yourself to your manager, your team-mates and, more than anyone, yourself.
“I like to think that I am mentally strong – but this has been tough, there’s no doubt about that.”
There is one key challenge that lies ahead. In his 12-minute substitute appearance for Whickham, strong physical contact with defenders was
How will his knee react to that first keenly contested challenge? Will his body hold up to the intense physical battle between defender and striker?
“I am waiting for that first tackle and the first contact because that’s the tough thing,” McNall admitted. “I don’t mind saying it’s on your mind when you’re on the pitch.
“It plays on you a bit, JJ O’Donnell (Gateshead winger) said that it happened to him and it took him a year to get over that side of the game after he was out for two and a half years.
“But you only really get big tackles in games, it doesn’t really happen in training and that’s the aim now because that’s when I will know.
“I am waiting for that tackle, I played in friendlies and you don’t really get them there.
“It’s in competitive games, where the big tackles come because it means something then.
“I want to get match-fit, I want to feel the old niggles and strains of playing on a regular basis and I want that competitive streak of going into strong challenges.”
Whickham will offer McNall a chance to regain the confidence and fitness that led to him being viewed as one of the most promising prospects in Newcastle United’s academy just a few years ago.
He is now keen to repay the Lang Jacks for showing faith in him as he takes the next step on the long road back.
“I need to play regularly, and I am absolutely delighted Whickham showed faith in me and they have given me a chance,” he explained.
“Hopefully, I can repay their faith with goals and by getting back to match fitness.
“I spoke to the manager (Mark Convery) last week, he was really good with me, and everyone has been so far, which is great for me.
“There are good people at the club, now I want to repay with goals and helping them in the league.”